There’s a myth among meat eaters that going without animal protein means a life of insipid tofu and rice. No flesh. No flavor. No fun. At least that’s what the meat lobby wants you to believe.
I’m not a vegetarian, but I’m here to tell you there’s plenty of excitement to be had without consuming meat. Case in point: Indian food. Exhibit A: India Chaat Cuisine.
Don’t let the prosaic name fool you. The Sunnyvale restaurant is anything but boring. The stretch of El Camino Real between Santa Clara and Sunnyvale is the Bay Area’s premier destination for Indian food, particularly southern Indian food. To distinguish themselves from the competition, these restaurants have had to specialize. Indian Chaat Cuisine stands out for its chaat (small plates of crunchy, spicy and sweet snacks) and its Maharashtrian dishes.
Chaat is fairly common in Silicon Valley. Maharashtrian food (food from the south central Indian state of Maharashtra) is far less known. Both are quite good.
Chaat is a street snack that began in Bombay and has become so popular in the United States that there are mini-chain restaurants that specialize in the food. Chaat is as fast and cheap as any American fast food, but it’s made without meat or deep-frying, so it has the added appeal of actually being good for you.
But the real reason to look for it is that it’s flat-out delicious. Chaat is a blend of some kind of crispy starch (wheat flour, garbanzo-bean flour) or soft dumplings made from lentil or garbanzo batter combined with potatoes, garbanzo beans and, sometimes, sprouted beans. Spicy and sweet sauces—typically a green mint and/or cilantro sauce and a tamarind and/or date sauce—as well as yogurt are the classic accompaniments.
There’s an ephemeral quality to chaat, too. While a cheeseburger can sit wrapped up in a bag until you get home and still taste good, chaat must be eaten immediately. Crispy ingredients like bhel, puri and sev are added to the moist ingredients just before serving. Wait more than a few minutes, and it becomes a soggy mess. But those few moments when the chaat is at its prime are as delicious as they are short.
For me, pani puri is the essence of chaat, and it’s great at Indian Chaat Cuisine. The dish ($4.25) combines hollow, puffed shells of rice with garbanzos, sprouted beans, potato and onion. You add a little mint chutney or tamarind sauce to give it a spicy-sweet punch and then pop the whole package in your mouth. Indian Chaat Cuisine’s version is a little different in that it’s unassembled. It’s up to you to delicately punch a hole in the rice puff and fill it to your liking.
Bhel puri ($4.25) is another winner. It’s like a salad of all the best chaat bits and pieces, rice crispies, strands of toasted wheat, potatoes, chutneys, onions and other goodies. It’s a crunchy, flavorful mess.
Misal pav ($4.99) is a less common dish. It combines black lentils with crispy noodles and diced vegetables on a soft bun. It’s like a veggie burger—sort of.
All the chaat I tried was good, but I was also intrigued by the seldom-seen Maharashtrian food. The dishes are listed on a special menu, so make sure you ask for it. Most of the dishes are served on banana leaves and fall into the snack or small-plate category. The most interesting was the sabudana vada ($4.25), little fried balls made with peanuts, tapioca and potatoes. They were light and crunchy, moist inside and served with a spicy yet cooling coconut sauce and peanut sauce.
I loved the deep-green and brown-colored thalipeeth ($6.25), too. It’s a hearty, multigrain pancake made from roasted lentil flour, rice, onions and a big handful of spices like coriander and cumin seeds. The chutney and intensely spicy-salty pickles served with it make for a really intriguing dish. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, check out the puran poli ($5.99), two pieces of flatbread filled with a cardamom-scented sweet paste made from lentil and wheat flour.
Indian Chaat Cuisine also serves a list of standard Indian vegetarian dishes like chana (garbanzo) masala ($5.49), malai kofta (vegetarian dumplings with a thick, nut-based sauce, $6.79) and best of all, the baigan bhartha (slow-cooked, mashed eggplant enlivened with a full cupboard of Indian spices, $6.49).
Whether you eat meat or not, you really can’t go wrong.